[The following "guest column" by me appeared in "The City Wire" this last Sunday. The story refers to an incident where a divorced dad walked into a county courthouse with three guns, tried unsuccessfully to find and kill the family court judge who has handled his divorce, then shot up the courthouse. He only wounded one person, but was killed when he walked outside and continued firing toward the assembled police force.]
When James Ray Palmer burned his home, loaded up his arms, and marched into the Crawford County courthouse last week, it wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. Friends and family say he had been leaving clues for awhile that things were about to boil over.And, in fact, it seems the kettle had been bubbling for 12 years, since his divorce. The feelings percolating in his heart weren’t too alien from those many other divorced parents have felt.
Divorce, it has been said, is one of the greatest tragedies we can go through. It is personal in a way few other injuries can be. It strikes to a person’s heart, their self-image, their very soul. The death of a relationship you had counted on being life-long reshapes your concept of life and the world you live in. If you’ve been divorced, even if you were the one who filed for your divorce, you understand the intimacy of the disturbance.
As a family mediator specializing in divorce and re-marriage, I have seen thousands of instances of divorce, some handled well, and many handle poorly. Far too many of the individuals I meet with tell of being just a few steps away from the tragedy that ended Palmer’s pain. They speak of great, burning anger, dreams of revenge, personal agony that never really goes away.
The disturbing fact is that James Palmer acted out what so many divorced parents have fantasized. Most of us just don’t pick up the guns and charge in shooting.
All indications are that Palmer didn’t intend to harm anyone except the judge he blamed for his broken family. The only person shot was the judge’s assistant, and it’s difficult to imagine someone so poor a shot that more than 70 rounds accidentally didn’t hit anyone in the enclosed halls of the courthouse. He was looking for a way out of his misery, and just maybe willing to take out the man he saw as responsible. Notice that in his final act, he didn’t go after his ex-wife or any other family members, just the one outsider closest to the mess.
If that is so, what drove this father and reportedly quiet man over the edge? Why, after more than 10 years fretting over his problems, did he snap now? The answer to that, of course, only James Palmer himself knows for sure, but we know the effects of divorce never really end for a person. As I said before, divorce cuts deeply and re-shapes a person’s attitudes and ideals. The perceived betrayal or abandonment by a person you trusted completely is a life-changing event.
When a child is involved, it can be even more disturbing.
Through a class I teach for divorcing parents, I have the opportunity to hear and sometimes reach many of these individuals in the middle of their breakup. The mix of feelings — from anger to despair to hopelessness to desperation — leaves them unsure of their position or their future. If they do not properly settle their feelings, the damage can go on the rest of their lives.Some divorcees deal with their loss in socially acceptable ways that are still destructive.
Drinking, taking drugs, jumping into inappropriate relationships, or throwing out mementoes they will want later are just ways of acting out their pain and confusion. They might use a bottle or someone else’s body instead of a gun, as Palmer did, but the effects are often the same — lives torn up, futures crashed, and, ultimately, their own life lost along the way.
What may someone do to prevent this sort of divorce-related tragedy in their own or a friend’s life? Most important is to deal with the real problem. All the forms of acting out are really ways of avoiding the loss that’s been suffered. Find someone to talk to about how you’re hurting — a close friend, a minister, or a counselor, but someone who can hear your pain, sympathize, understand, and offer encouragement to push on through to more sane times.